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Pete Seeger Joins Fight to Save Harlem Garden

by John Tarleton
June 30, 2002

NEW YORK--It’s a hot, sweltering day and the heat cooks you on the sidewalk as you stroll down a nearly treeless street in the middle of Harlem. It’s noisy as well as hot. Everywhere concrete and steel. Then, halfway down the block, you spot a canopy of trees that glisten like a green jewel. From the other side of the fence comes the sound of a guitar and people singing. You slip through a narrow gateway and find yourself walking on a soft dirt path in the shade of giant mulberry trees. A spry old man is standing attentively next to the tool shed with his guitar case. Someone calls out from the stage to ask the old man if he’s ready to play. He defers to a woman from Grand Rapids, Michigan who has just cut her own CD. There are still a few empty white chairs and you curl up in one, suddenly far removed from the cares of the world outside. This verdant garden seems to need no defense. Yet, it may be only a few weeks away from meeting the bulldozer. Supporters of the Joseph Daniel Wilson Memorial Garden on 219 W. 122nd St. are racing against time and an old friend of good causes is on hand to lift his voice.

"What a Priest Should Be"

Pete Seeger has been singing radical folk ballads for over six decades. He played with Woody Guthrie in the ‘40s, was blacklisted during the Red Scare of the ‘50s, helped spark the folk revival of the ‘60s. and has crusaded in recent decades for the cleanup of his beloved Hudson River. He has made over 100 records that include classics such as “Goodbye Irene”, “Where Have All the Soldiers Gone”, and “Turn, Turn, Turn”. He was also instrumental in transforming an old Negro spiritual into “We Shall Overcome”, anthem of the civil rights movement. Now 83, Seeger plays almost exclusively for small children. Seeger begins his performance with a few quietly haunting melodies from the same kind of hand-carved cedar flute that the Manhawtan Indians would have been playing 380 years ago when the first Dutch caravels came floating down the Hudson River and changed their lives forever.

"We need people like Pete," says Ajja Worley, one of the garden's founders. "He's more than just just a singer. He's like a priest, but what a priest should be."

Seeger is wearing blue jeans and a faded cap and looks 20 years younger than his age. His performance doubles as history lesson as he connects his music to the lives of African-American slaves, Jose Marti (hero of the late 19th century Cuban independence movement) and Dr. Martin Luther King. Not content to just play songs for his audience, he tries with mixed success to get them to sing along as well. About a dozen children join him on stage and he teaches them a simple song line-by-line (“Don’t say it can’t be done/the battle’s just begun/Take it from Dr. King/You too can learn to sing/so drop the gun”) that the rest of the crowd joins in singing. Seeger ends by encouraging the crowd of about 75 people to keep up the good fight.

“I think you are going to save your garden. I don’t quite know how. But, I know you will.” He then adds, “there are more small groups of people in this country doing good things than any time in history. Not thousands or tens of thousands but hundreds of thousands of groups. These are people who figure they have to do something, if only for their own piece of mind.”

Reclaiming the Land

Worley is one of those people. He remembers when the garden site was a vacant lot full of discarded stoves, refrigerators, cars and other industrial detritus. It was 1985 and Worley’s wife Cindy believed it would make an excellent garden. She was aided by Joseph Daniel Wilson, an octogenarian neighbor who wanted to re-create some of the lush greenness of his native Guyana. Worley soon joined in and within a couple of months the site was cleared. Their effort was a part of Greening Harlem, a community wide initiative sparked by Bernadette Cosart, a former Parks Department employee. Cosart had travelled around the country and noticed the sameness everywhere of blighted inner city communities. She believed that a community deserves to have green spaces and set out to do something about it.

“Who says you have to live on Park Avenue to have parks or street trees or center aisle trees?” She told New York City Indymedia after Sunday’s benefit.

School and community gardens began popping up all over Harlem. Her superiors at the Parks Department mistakenly thought she was doing beautification work. For Cosart, it was a “peoples’ land reclamation”.

Worley, a former Black Panther, helped establish free health clinics and free school breakfast programs during his youth. He also understood the subversive impact of the gardens.

“The people with big bucks don’t want people in the community to have a sustainable environment,” Worley said. “It takes them out of the picture. What if we started to think we could renovate all these buildings. It would change the power.”

Gardens in Peril

Besides mulberry trees, the garden now has giant shrubs, rose bushes, tomato plants, a beehive and a tiny pond with goldfish and tadpoles. 20 people are regularly involved with the work of the garden and another 50 are on the periphery, Worley says. It is one of 400 community gardens in the city that is currently protected by a temporary restraining order obtained by New York state attorney general Elliot Spitzer. Spitzer’s office and the city have been negotiating a compromise settlement for weeks. Community gardeners and their supporters are concerned that as many as 230 gardens will be be handed over to real estate developers (by way of the city) and that poorer neighborhoods of color in Harlem, South Bronx and East Brooklyn, which have the least amount of green space, will be disproportionately impacted.

“What they look at is the bottom line and money,” Cosart said of real estate developers and their political allies. “We look at lives.”

Groups like the More Gardens! Coalition are encouraging people to flood key officials with phone calls over the next couple of weeks. Worley and the other gardeners hope to hang onto their land, though three other nearby gardens unprotected by the restraining order have been bulldozed in recent months.

"Money tends to make things lean toward developers,” he said. “The reality is that any garden we can save is going to be a good thing.”

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